Will Cosmos Work?

By Kyle Hill | March 7, 2014 10:30 am

CosmosPicIf you’re interested in science and own a TV, you will probably be watching the reboot of Cosmos this Sunday. You also probably know that the show will be updated with new science since Carl Sagan’s original series, that it features astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and that its premiere will be “the biggest roll-out in television history,” if you believe major backer of the show, Seth MacFarlane. You may have read profiles, news pieces, interviews, or even seen a preview of the show. But nobody knows the answer to the most important question—will Cosmos work?

Science TV shows are an interesting breed of entertainment. They seek not only to entertain, but also to teach, to help the viewer learn. And because the television medium allows for so much creative exploration, it might not surprise you that nobody can agree on the best way to teach and entertain at the same time. Just last weekend, dozens of scientists and communicators gathered at Science Online 2014—a conference of writers, teachers, video makers, and science enthusiasts—to discuss what actually works when communicating science. No concrete answers emerged.

It’s hard to even quantify what “works” means. Does a science communication effort work if the viewer learns something that they can later recall? If it pushes them towards a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)? If the viewer was entertained but didn’t learn anything that could be tested for in a survey?

Researchers who study science communication do have some theories. Something that they all seem to agree on is that the so-called “Deficit Model” of earlier science and health communication efforts does not work. It assumes that the way to get viewers to change their minds about an issue is to put more and more facts in their face. The Deficit Model is outdated and not very sophisticated. We now know that many other factors come into play. For example, if a TV show tries to teach viewers about cancer risk, the effort will not work if the viewer has a negative emotional response to the information.  This “risk aversion” means that more information is not necessarily better, especially if the information could be psychologically distressing.

We also know that people are not Vulcans. Researchers may like to think that, given all the facts, we make rational choices. Ask economists how that assumption works out for them. No, we are emotional creatures who use value-based reasoning in conjunction with our rationality. A message can be perfectly logical and accurate, but if a person is pre-disposed to de-value that information, the message with fall flat, or even worse, it will give strength to their previous beliefs. And if the belief is dangerous, like the belief that vaccines are a public health scourge, then facts-only messaging is also dangerous.

Instead of a Deficit Model system, many social scientists now consider human information processing as a system with two approaches—fast and/or slow, to use the phrase of Daniel Kahnemann. The fast approach uses rules, models, and assumptions called heuristics to make quick and dirty (but efficient) decisions. The slow approach takes much more mental effort, but it is a much deeper look at the message and its contents, and forms longer-lasting beliefs. The tricky part is that both of these approaches can happen simultaneously in our minds, and can even destructively interfere. You might abandon reading an in-depth article on genetics if it brings up a forceful defense of GMO foods (if you are morally opposed to GMO foods), for example.

So what approach will Cosmos take advantage of? According to the show’s writers and creators, it’s going to be flashy and entertaining. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson will appear at 30 different locations throughout the show and visual effects artists from The Matrix and Spider-Man 2 will help to make everything look suitably cosmic. Will this work? It certainly isn’t a bad tactic to appeal to out fast-thinking systems. Perhaps if viewers who aren’t particularly interested in science are disarmed by the visuals and the presentation, they can be convinced to stick with the show and maybe become science enthusiasts themselves.

And what about the science enthusiasts? What will they get out of Cosmos? To be honest, probably not much. Those who are eager to see the reboot most likely saw the original series with Carl Sagan, and science has only changed so much in the intervening decades. If you already have a working knowledge of evolution and cosmology, it’s doubtful that Cosmos will change your perspective.

But, staying honest, those who already love science and can’t wait to see the show aren’t the viewers science communicators care about. We want to reach the untapped masses that might become the next Sagan or Einstein or Curie and get them interested in science—hopefully entertaining them at the same time. On Sunday, during the biggest rollout in TV history, there will be millions watching as Dr. Tyson explains the incredible complexity of living things and the enormity of the universe, while others sit and hope those millions will learn something. There’s a lot on the line here for science communication.

Cosmos isn’t merely a show…it’s a test.

Cosmos has the weight of the science-communicating world on its shoulders. If science communication cannot succeed with the help of multiple large TV networks, flashy visuals, a charismatic presenter, and some of the best science writers (especially Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan), then where do we go from there? What else could we do? Could we ever mount this kind of effort again?

And even if the show does “work” (a slippery concept in itself), could we tell? How the original Cosmos affected me personally was long-term. I wasn’t born early enough to see the original series, but after getting a hold of it in my teen years, it was one of the driving forces behind my passion for science. But that kind of effect is something no survey can quantify. Could the reboot influence the next engineers, doctors, and scientists? Quite possibly. But if it does, we might not ever know, at least not until those who watch the show decide to tell us.

The disturbing truth about science communication is that we have theories and ways of delivering messages that really are like putting a candle to the dark, as Carl Sagan would say. We aren’t sure what will work, when, or how much. But for all that uncertainty, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Science has illuminated some much darkness in our history, given humanity such a helping hand, that it would be foolish to extinguish any effort to communicate it before it starts.

Cosmos will try to keep the candle burning, and that’s enough for me.

Image Credit: Courtesy of FOX

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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But Not Simpler

It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture.But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_PhileEmail him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.

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